By Megan Kroger
After being refugees of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese residents of Versailles, in New Orleans East, already knew a thing or two about government discrimination and the need to endure. By the time Hurricane Katrina hit, those who had experienced forced immigration were old and still did not feel connected to their new home, the United States. The youth on the other hand, had immersed themselves in American culture and were losing touch with their Vietnamese roots, unable to understand the hardships their ancestors had suffered. Because of Hurricane Katrina and the struggles that followed, the youth were able to bring the elders out of their shell. Leo Chiang, a native of Taiwan and graduate in film production from University of Southern California, wanted to depict their struggle and send a message to underrepresented communities (PBS). We see in A Village Called Versailles, a documentary by Chiang, that thanks to the combined determination and perseverance of the elders and the youth, the two age groups were able to close the gap, allowing the native Vietnamese to become comfortable with being American.
When the Vietnamese came to the United States in 1975 as a result of the war, New Orleans was the desired destination for several reasons. The climate of the city resembles that of Vietnam, so there was no weather change they would have to adapt to. One of the major causes for discrimination at home had been their religion, for those who were Catholic. After facing oppression from the Confucius government, settling in a Catholic city was welcoming (Airriess). Their religion is still extremely important to them, as it helped them through the hard times in Vietnam and continued to do so in New Orleans. Most families cultivated gardens as they had in Vietnam, an activity that served as a pastime and even a career for some elderly women. It was all they knew and being able to take that with them to a new place made the gardens even more significant (Airriess). Many of the men took up fishing, a life they knew in Vietnam and work that did not depend on speaking English well. When the second wave of Vietnamese arrived in New Orleans in the 1980s and 1990s, Chiang shows how fishing saved many, as their experience gave them the upper hand over even some locals. Although Chiang shows that some of the local Louisiana fisherman were prejudiced against them, outright discrimination was kept at bay. Most of the elders never learned how to speak English though, instead opening shops within their community and depending on welfare. New Orleans East, where 1970s developers reclaimed swamps, was inexpensive, a benefit of settling in this part of the city (New Orleans Online). The Vietnamese of Versailles had created their own world that worked for them, never needing to reach out to the greater community. They were content within themselves, until Hurricane Katrina changed that.
At first, the residents’ isolation and disconnection with the city of New Orleans hurt them because New Orleanians knew little of their needs, some not even knowing of their existence. With the help of their past experiences as refugees, Chiang suggests that they were able to rebuild quicker than the rest of the city. Immediately after the hurricane, when everyone involved was just trying to make sense of what had happened, help was hard to come by for the Vietnamese. Translators were scarce, and they had no one to turn to. They were reminded of being refugees again: lost, confused, and alone. Chiang focuses on how the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church visited his parishioners in temporary shelters out of state, and encouraged them to return to rebuild Versailles. His encouragement fueled their desire to get back to the home it took thirty years to make. Many residents came back to the city not long after the hurricane so they could rebuild and get back to normalcy. Similar to their experience as refugees, they had to use whatever resources they could find to rebuild. Some were even forced to heat food using a metal chair and a small flame held underneath, a scene Chiang chooses to film to show their determination. Using their own means, the village was able to rebuild and the pastor held his first mass since Katrina only six weeks after the disaster, a significant event as the church not only represents their religion but their sense of community. Those who attended the mass who but who had not yet returned were inspired to join the effort of recreating their village. Unfortunately, the reappearance of normalcy was not enough to keep the government at bay.
The elders’ previous experience as refugees helped them through the process of rebuilding but when the city decided to construct a landfill downstream of their village to accommodate post-Katrina destruction, they needed support from the youth. The language barrier between the Vietnamese and the government was only one of the problems that needed addressing. How could the villagers fight a system and a culture they were not familiar with? They needed the younger members of Versailles, who had been educated in America and took part in American ways. Chiang depicts their Americanization by showing them dancing and using American slang, with even a hint of a Southern accent in some of their voices. The youth educated themselves about the landfills, so they could fully understand the problem and be able to fight it most effectively. The youth, most of whom were born in New Orleans, were already distant from their Vietnamese roots. When it came to protesting the landfill though, they were eager and determined. Chiang shows them literally side by side with the elders, as they carried signs and yelled chants, even though they were discriminated against during these protests. They understood what they were fighting for: their home and all they knew.
In the thirty years since arriving in the United States, the Vietnamese had made a home for themselves, however disconnected from the rest of New Orleans. They had created a safety net for their families and future generations. Before the hurricane, the villagers were content, even if there were differences between their past culture and their new American home. Katrina made them reevaluate the isolated world they made. Elders were confident in what they had built, and rebuilt, and comfortable in their surroundings, now proud to say “We are American” (Chiang). Youth understood the importance of their Vietnamese culture and gained new respect for what their ancestors had been through. Chiang ends the documentary here, achieving his goal of inspiring “underrepresented communities everywhere – groups of people whose collective voices were not often heard – to organize, to take action, and to fight for what they believe in” (PBS). Ninety percent of residents have returned to Versailles after the hurricane (Chiang), compared to the rest of New Orleans, which stands at about seventy-five percent (Plyer). Chiang’s A Village Called Versailles suggests that after every storm is a rainbow, and the bigger the storm the more inspiring and hopeful the aftermath can be.
1. After Hurricane Katrina, 2010, The Bleader, http://www.chicagoreader.com/binary/da30/1273851860-versailles2.jpg
2. Protesting, 2011, Xfinity, http://xfinity.comcast.net/blogs/tv/files/2011/07/Versailles-protest.jpg
3. Map of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Mary+Queen+of+Vietnam+Church,+Dwyer+Boulevard,+New+Orleans,+LA&hl=en&sll=38.880816,-77.102156&sspn=0.149933,0.338173&oq=mary+queen+of+viet&hq=Mary+Queen+of+Vietnam+Church,&hnear=Dwyer+Blvd,+New+Orleans,+Orleans,+Louisiana+70129&t=m&z=16
Airriess, Christopher A. “Creating Vietnamese Landscapes and Place in New Orleans.” Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space, and Place. Ed. Kate A. Berry and Martha L. Henderson. Reno: University of Nevada, 2002. 228-50. Print
“The Filmmaker.” Interview. PBS. Independent Lens, 17 May 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/village-called-versailles/filmmaker.html
“From Far East to New Orleans East.” New Orleans Online. New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, n.d. Web. 4 May 2013. http://www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/multicultural/multiculturalhistory/vietnamese.html
“The Making Of “A Village Called Versailles”” PBS. Independent Lens, 17 May 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2013. http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/village-called-versailles/makingof.html
Plyer, Allison. “Facts for Features: Hurricane Katrina Recovery.” GNOCDC. Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 3 May 2013. http://www.gnocdc.org/Factsforfeatures/HurricaneKatrinaRecovery/
A Village Called Versailles. Dir. Leo Chiang. New Day Films, 2010. DVD.